Children's books: fantasy and horror

Victoria Neumark

Elske
By Cynthia Voigt
Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99. TES Direct pound;4.49 (020 8324 5119)
Dr Franklin's Island
By Ann Halam
Orion Dolphin pound;4.99. TES Direct pound;4.49
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray
By Chris Wooding
Scholastic pound;12.99. TES Direct pound;12.49

Early adolescence is the time for daydreams. Can anything be as boring as a Year 8 lesson, the
subject of which you neither know nor care to know, because all you want to think about are the changes you and your acquaintances are going through?

Fantasy and horror stories are traditionally aimed at this age range, to cater for all the shuddering revulsion embodied in the gross physicality of adults. More subtly, the sub-genre of the "as if" story seems custom-made for Years 7 to 9: what if scientists really could change your body to another animal? If history had been different? If science really could conjure up monsters? Yet to adult readers, such notions can rapidly wear thin. It takes a strong story to sustain them.

Elske, by the masterly Cynthia Voigt, is a kind of "as if" Icelandic saga. Brought up by the feral Volkaric, also known as Wolfers and clearly dead ringers for the Vikings, Elske escapes her doom on a funeral pyre and becomes a servant in an "as if" Baltic trading city state. It is gripping stuff, and reminiscent of the Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Likewise, Ann Halam's offbeat story of an evil scientist and three castaway teenagers goes deeper than mere flesh-creeping. Semi, a pathologically shy and short-sighted conservation volunteer, narrates her shape-shifting adventures on a tropical island as if she were writing a holiday journal. After the plane crash, it seems that the volunteers are alone. How are they to survive?

Ann Halam's writing transcends a potentially ludicrous plot in which the young people are changed into giant fish and birds - gills, feathers and all - then changed back. Halam pulls the story off because it is completely grounded in an almost banal teen perspective.

Chris Wooding's The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is another gripping tale: a more straight-forward horror story than Halam's, mixing a setting of an "as if" Victorian London (complete with a virtual Jack-the-Ripper figure) with bizarre Grand Guignol-style touches.

  • Picture: Grand Guignol, John Carpenter's 1978 shocker Halloween
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's TES

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Victoria Neumark

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